It was the fourth lap of the three-mile run, the final turn, and Jim Ryun, drained by the 90° heat, dizzy, his eyes not focusing, stepped off the track—and out of the race. At the far end of the field Lee Evans, the captain of the San Jose State track team that was overtaking Kansas in the fight for the NCAA title, couldn't see what had happened, and he waited for Ryun to reappear from behind the judges' stand.
"Where is he, man?" Evans screeched. "Where is he?"
"Ryun's out," someone yelled. "Ryun's out."
Evans smiled and pointed to the scoreboard, which showed Kansas with 45 points and San Jose with 30—but 18 additional points San Jose had won were unposted. "We got it, man," Evans yelled. "We messed up, and they tried to mess on us, and we still got the title."
June 29, 1969
Ryun was sitting alone now in a tent by the track. John Carlos—who had won the 100 and, after taking two painkillers to ease muscle spasms, came back to win the 220 and anchor San Jose's victorious 440-relay team—walked into the tent and shook Ryun's hand.
"Take it easy, man," Carlos said. "You showed me a lot out there today. I ran enough races. I know how it feels."
Ryun tried to smile.
"Was it the heat?" an official asked.
"It was the heat and the humidity," Carlos answered for Ryun. "Man, there was nothing else he could do out there. It took something for him to go out there and try to run two races."
"John impressed me by what he did," Ryun said later.
"Sure, I went to see him," Carlos said, a bit amazed that anyone would doubt this side of John Carlos. "Look, man, I'm not prejudiced against Jim Ryun or anybody else. The man showed me something out there. Just going out for the three-mile, after the mile he ran, that showed me."
In a meet as unpredictable as that held in Knoxville last weekend it was only appropriate that San Jose, a team of mavericks, should win. A world record was set in the 440, as many expected, but not by Evans or Villanova's Larry James. Curtis Mills, a sophomore journalism major at Texas A&M, snuck by Evans 50 yards from the finish, surprising Evans, the fans and himself with a 44.7.
"All I was really trying to do," Mills admitted, "was become an All-America. I was only trying to finish fourth [enough to qualify him]. See, we got this plaque up at school where they put names of guys who make All-America. I wanted mine up there with Randy Matson's."
Both Evans and James were certain Tommie Smith's record of 44.8 would be broken but, just as certainly, not by Curtis Mills. "All season long I trained to meet Larry James," Evans had said. "People are telling me about these other dudes but James is the only other one in the race."
"Lee is all who counts in this race," James had said. "I don't have to worry about anyone else."
"I think maybe they were worried only about themselves," reflected Mills after his win. "I don't believe they even thought of me."
In the race Mills stayed comfortably in third, behind Evans and James, until they turned down the final straight. First Mills passed James, who had run an extraordinary 21-flat first 220, then Evans, who still was thinking of no one but James. "I knew I was ahead of Larry," Evans said, "and I was just concentrating on keeping my form together until the finish. When Mills went by me, well, I started flailing all over. I didn't have time to pull myself back together."
"I don't care if someone does better tonight," Mills said. "For now the record's mine. It's beautiful." He was then asked how, as a budding journalist, he would have written up the race. "I'd say I was scared when I started," he said, "but it was a heck of a finish."
Mills wasn't the only one overlooked. Villanova's Erv Hall, just slightly better known, tied the world record for the 120-yard high hurdles (13.2) in a qualifying heat. Brigham Young's Ralph Mann tied an American record in the 440-yard intermediate hurdles (49.6), only to be ignored by television and reporters and a little autograph hunter, who asked Mann if he could please get Pole Vaulter Bob Seagren over so Seagren could sign a program. Frank Shorter of Yale won the first six-mile he had ever run and later came in second in the three-mile. Dick Fosbury made a comeback, winning the high jump at 7'2½", and in the final race of the three-day meet, while everyone wondered where Jim Ryun had gone, UCLA set an American record in the mile relay (3:03.4).
But the meet's character came from the battle for the team championship. All week long people talked of Kansas and San Jose, but mostly of San Jose and its corps of sprinters—John Carlos and Ronnie Ray Smith and Kirk Clayton and Sam Davis and Lee Evans. They walked everywhere together, Carlos leading the pack, James Brown playing from the tape recorder over his shoulder, the others stutter-stepping, cool-jerking, and they were soon dubbed the Bandits. "Look at it this way," Carlos said. "Everyone wanted a shot at Jesse James. He was the fastest and the baddest, and they came from all over to try and get him. We're the fastest, so they come from all over to try and get us."
Through Thursday and Friday it looked like Kansas would finally gun Jesse James down. While San Jose had a series of chokes and mishaps, Kansas could do no wrong. Stan Whitley, its long jumper, took a second with the best jump of his life (26'7¾"). Marion Anderson, San Jose's long jumper, failed to win a point. Steve Wilhelm, Kansas' No. 2 shotputter, finished second to teammate Karl Salb, with his best toss ever (63'6¼") San Jose Shotputter Richard Marks failed to qualify for the finals. George Byers, Kansas' hurdler, finished fourth, equaling his best time (13.6). San Jose's George Carty was a nonscoring seventh. "I can't believe it," Evans said. "We're getting messed over."
There had been little maneuvering by either Kansas Coach Bob Timmons or San Jose's Bud Winter. Winter's only gamble was entering Clayton and Smith in individual races and risking reoccurrences of leg pulls that had hampered them both all year. Winter won. Timmons' only gamble was entering Ryun in the three-mile, hoping there would be no qualifying heat. Timmons lucked out. There wasn't.
Going into the final day Kansas had a 14-point lead over San Jose, and Salb and Wilhelm were already planning how they would throw Timmons in a swimming pool as a combination birthday (he was 45 on Friday) and victory present. Kansas had worked as a team all year, and now, after winning the NCAA indoor title, it was ready for what Timmons called "the true championship." "We have a lot to gain by winning this meet," Hurdler Byers explained. "We've always been in the background. People disregard us. They look at our indoor win as a fluke, earned only because some teams weren't there. We don't get invited to many big meets, and the ones we have gone to, well, people would always say it was because of Jim Ryun. I have nothing against Ryun. I like him. But now we're coming up as a team and people are going to start knowing us as one. It's my fourth year with Jim and it's time I did something on my own, not because of him."
San Jose, on the other hand, was struggling. Blessed with great individual talent, it worked only loosely as a unit. Evans tried to hold it together. "I'll tell you," he said, "to be captain of an NCAA championship team would mean as much to me as the gold medal I won in the Olympics." Still, there were those who doubted San Jose could win. "They're a bunch of prima donnas," said one. "Everyone on the team has to be the center of attraction, in the limelight. They're all good enough to make it by themselves. And they know it. The law of individual differences applies to that team more than any other."
Yet each at San Jose worked in his own manner. Ronnie Ray Smith, an Olympic gold medalist in the 4 X 100 meter relay, exercised in his room after he got up and before he went to bed, stretching and strengthening his hamstring. George Carty, the hurdler, worked twice a day on form. Even Carlos, whom many regarded as the archetype of San Jose's individuality, worried about the NCAA title, and Friday morning he got up early and woke everyone, making sure they were down for breakfast and ready for a team meeting.
Until the mile run Saturday afternoon, it seemed the way to San Jose would be a long, sad one. Then Villanova's Marty Liquori beat Jim Ryun, and suddenly Kansas didn't seem invincible. The race was tailored for Ryun. Both he and Liquori went through the three-quarters in a so-so 3:03.3. As they headed down the backstretch everyone, including Liquori, waited for Ryun to explode. "I kept saying to myself," Liquori said, "come by, will you, dammit, so I can see what I have in me. Every time he challenged, though, I held him off."
They went down the backstretch, Ryun on Liquori's right elbow, his head bobbing, his face contorted, and both started thinking of the national indoors in Detroit, when they had run like this for two laps, Ryun winning at the tape. Again they came off the turn together. But this time, when Ryun challenged, Liquori held him off, suddenly realizing that he could win. With 50 yards to go, he peeked over his shoulder and Ryun was still there; 20 yards later he looked again. "All of a sudden there was daylight," Liquori said later. "I couldn't believe it." He turned back, made two tight fists, shook them and moved toward the tape. "For a minute I was so surprised," he said, "I thought I'd never make it to the line."
With Evans' second in the 440, Carlos' victory in the 220 and the win in the 440 relay, the San Jose Spartans were ahead, and only Kansas, with Jim Ryun in the three-mile, could beat them. "He won't even place," one coach said. Liquori smiled when he heard that. "He's got to be mad," he said. "Watch him come back."
But he didn't. If for only a day, Jim Ryun was mortal, at the mercy of the elements, hurt by the strategy, bothered even by doubts in his own mind. However, Timmons didn't really intend to double Ryun; Kansas was supposed to have clinched the title before the three-mile. Ryun, fearing the worst, hoped at dinner on Friday night it would all work that way. No one blamed him for the failures, least of all Timmons, who, for 2½ days, thought the title was his. "Maybe the kids tried too hard," he said. "And I'm afraid we counted on Jim too much."
Winter, with his first title in 25 years of coaching, refused to accept congratulations until the results were official. "It has to be a miracle," he said finally. "At least a minor miracle. I didn't believe it could happen," As he talked, his Bandits signed autographs, flirted and moved out to celebrate, inviting Liquori to join them in their victory lap (he declined). The shot that might have killed Jesse James had missed.